reread: Pieces of White Shell by Terry Tempest Williams

pieces of white shellThis memory from my childhood was every bit as good this time around. Terry Tempest Williams is a curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History in the early 1980’s, and in encountering Navajo people and their stories, she begins to learn her own natural history, her own and her (Mormon) culture’s connections to the earth, and how to find and tell stories herself. The tone is fanciful, but also grounded in the literal ground of her local environment in the Utah desert. In her first chapter, she shakes a small leather pouch out onto her desk and finds a sprig of sage; rocks, sand, and seeds; turquoise, obsidian, coral; pieces of white shell; yucca; a bouquet of feathers bound by yarn; coyote fur; a bone from Black Mountain; deerskin; wool; a potshard and some corn pollen; and the Storyteller, a clay figurine from Jemez. These objects, collected during her communion with people and place, form the chapters of her book. I’m not sure whether to call these stories or essays; they are both. There is an element of dreaminess: she is sure she heard the drums of the Anasazi, and tells of transforming into Flea to hide out and listen to the stories the animals tell on Black Mountain. These are not literal truths in the scientific world as we understand it. Does that make these stories fiction? Allegory? Spiritual journeys? I’ll leave it to you. I am not a spiritual person by any standard definition, but Terry Tempest Williams holds me in thrall. This book is still the one of hers that touches me most deeply.

I don’t know how many times I read this book as a child, but it clearly made a deep impression on me. Several lines echoed like I just read them yesterday, or like I’d copied them into countless margins and scrawled them in notebooks over the years. “How could I tell him the mind creates those things that exist. I couldn’t, and so I concentrated on birdlife to avoid a confrontation.” “No one culture has dominion over birdsong. We all share the same sky.” “If we all live, and continue to increase as we have done, the earth will soon be too small to hold us, and there will be no room for the cornfields” (says Coyote in one of the Navajo stories). And new lines jumped out at me on this reading. Because I’m working on processing my relationship with place: “Sometimes you have to disclaim your country and inhabit another before you can return to your own.” “Each of us harbors a homeland. The stories that are rooted there push themselves up like native grasses and crack the sidewalks.” Like all the best books, then, I’m continuing to discover it.

The stories Williams tells in each chapter of this book are from her life, living and working at the very four corners of the four corners states. A Utah Mormon, she gets to know the Navajo and their stories, and sees certain similarities between these two cultures which share a place. She explores Navajo stories and the storytelling tradition, the animals and plants and places they interact with, and uses these to map her own life; she explores story as tool for communication, history-building, and wise and respectful relationships with our earth, and its human and nonhuman inhabitants. In reading these stories, as a child, I was enchanted by the stories of animals like Coyote, Bear, and Badger, and characters like Monster Slayer and Child-of-the-Waters, who were twin sons born to Sun and Changing Woman. I learned about the flora and fauna of New Mexico and Utah deserts (quite exotic to me then, and now). In rereading the same stories as an adult, I get more of Williams’s search for answers about the world, about her family, her homeland, its significance, and her spiritual and cross-cultural questions. It is a rich experience.

My mother asks if this is a children’s book. I did first find it as a child and loved it then, in elementary school. Its origins in my family are unknown; I feel like it just appeared on a bookshelf. Someone must have bought it – for me specifically, it seems likely. I am an only child. But we don’t know. Neither of my parents remembers it. As it turns out, Pieces of White Shell is not marketed as a children’s book. But Williams worked with children (as well as adults) when she wrote it, and in the stories she tells. It is certainly accessible to a child, in its tone of wonderment and simple joy and careful observation.

This was published in 1984, and Refuge in 1991, and I can see some of the evolution. In Pieces of White Shell, Williams is still getting to know her world; in the later work, she more confidently moves in it and speaks of it, although she has retained her capacity for wonder (still alive and well in her recent retelling, The Story of My Heart). Refuge is also necessarily much sadder, as it studies personal loss while Pieces of White Shell takes pleasure in discovery.

Terry Tempest Williams was and is a remarkable, completely singular voice. “You always hear wings,” her family tells her in an anecdote in her prologue. I marvel, and I continue to learn from this deceptively simple grouping of stories. She is better known for other works but this is still my gold standard.

Rating: 9 coyotes.

5 Responses

  1. By whatever twist of fortune, I am glad this was around to help teach you proper spirituality when we were not around. She is a noble source.

    you can link this to your top 100 now!

  2. […] Pieces of White Shell, Terry Tempest Williams – nonfiction […]

  3. […] This is one of a few rereads and re-reviews, as I work my way into this semester’s project: my critical essay about the use of material things in Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemons, Terry Tempest Williams’s Pieces of White Shell, and a handful of Scott Russell Sanders’s essays. Original review here. […]

  4. […] worked best for me, and more recently they fall a little short. You know that my admiration for Pieces of White Shell continues. I had begun to think that maybe my criticism of this book came from my recent time in a […]

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